Saving Stanley – David Gregson’s 1936 Nippy restoration

The Austin Nippy was my first youthful romantic encounter. It was brief but left such an impression on my young mind that I knew that one day I would have one of my own. Some fifty odd years later this dream was finally to become a reality.

It is definitely not intended to be a guide on how to restore a Nippy, but just an account of how I approached the variety of challenges that the project presented. I have taken many photographs and made lots of sketches to prop up my own memory and if anyone would like to enter into any correspondence I would be happy to share my experiences on more specific areas.

Why the choice of title ‘Saving Stanley?’ I don’t know about you, but I feel that my Sevens were always a bit more than a collection of mechanical components and that they had at least a character or personality. With this in mind I liked to give them a name which somehow fitted their persona, it always seemed so much more personal than just referring to it as…. the car, the Seven or maybe the Nippy. This Nippy may have been called many things over its life but now it is known as ‘Stanley’ in honour of that wonderfully unassuming, ever enthusiastic and very humorous design draughtsman who helped create the car we love so much.

I was fortunate enough to meet Stanley Edge back in 1986 when he came to visit the Northern Classic Car Show and speak at our PWA7C Group meeting night. He came and had a meal with the family and I took him back home to Oswestry the following day. Treasured memories indeed.

The Nippy Story

In 2007 a close friend answered an advert for a Nippy in need of some attention and being a former military man and afraid of nothing he took the plunge and bought it over the phone! When we went to collect it, it soon became apparent that although it had quite clearly been a Nippy it was now more of a collection of A7 components and archaeological remains. A few weeks later my friend, having reappraised the situation took a tactical decision and delegated the responsibility of this particular campaign to… me – and so I became the new owner of said assorted bits!

As I was still deeply involved in my own battle to bring a 1962 Lotus Elite back to life, operation Stanley would have to wait a while and so although initial examination and a list of missing parts which would be required was compiled, serious restoration would have to wait. Fast forward to 2010 the Lotus completed and so time to start on the Nippy in earnest.

The Nippy arrived as a van load of assorted dismembered remains. Although in a million bits, at first sight it looked quite hopeful. Some parts were in grey primer and the radiator shell still had plenty of bright chrome as did the windscreen frame, but as the inspection progressed a little deeper its condition looked less optimistic. On the positive side and, as with most Sevens, the chassis appeared to have been well-preserved although some earlier repairs to cracked rear extensions would have to be treated again. Front and rear axles looked sound and a set of respectable wheels meant that it would at least roll. Unfortunately they were seventeen inch diameter and would have to be replaced or rebuilt if originality was to be regained. Once above the chassis the situation looked less cheerful. Decades of rust had done its best to destroy the floor pan, wheel arches and lower edges of the body. Valiant attempts had been made over the years to arrest its progress but with a floor that resembled a patchwork quilt and patches on patches which added weight but little overall rigidity it looked like a total body rebuild was going to be the only option. It is possible that previous owners had also reached the same conclusion and passed on the baton.

The wooden elements of the frame which hadn’t suffered from rot had been turned into charcoal by in-situ welding repairs. The hood, hood frame and trim were only good enough to use as patterns and the collection of engine parts included the Nippy deep sump, carburettor, inlet and exhaust manifolds and the oil pump extended pick up, otherwise little else matched.

At this point dear reader you may ask: ‘were we downhearted or depressed?’ and I would have to say well, actually, no! I did have to sit and think for a bit to let my head clear, but as they say love is blind and as I had taken a fairly close look at the collection before I decided to take it on, I had an idea of what I might find. This was not going to be a project for the faint hearted or indeed the first time restorer.
2007 images:

Time to start – as much of the car was already dismantled lots of small items were simply gathered into groups and packed away to await further attention. This left the chassis frame and body tub. The chassis stood happily against the workshop wall but the body was taking up valuable workshop space. It would have to be totally dismantled so that patterns could be made to replace the floor pan and wheel arches so that was what happened next. It was rather like an archeological dig and notes, drawings and photographs were taken to help with the eventual reconstruction. Patterns were made from the fragile remains of the timbers and I made a new set before I forgot how everything went together. The engine bulkhead, dash structure, transmission tunnel and a fair amount of the scuttle and tail could be repaired and re-used as could the bonnet sides and possibly the doors. The bonnet top appeared at first sight to be good but it had critical rusted areas around the hinges so would probably have to be renewed. Steel was ordered and the reproduction of many of the small fabricated bits and pieces was done. At this stage the remaining pieces of body could be stacked into a smaller space until I was ready to return to them.

The chassis frame, rear axles casing and all other suitable bits of steel work were taken for blasting. This was followed by welding repairs where required and then painting. Without going into boring detail suffice it to say that every single component was to be refurbished, restored or where required – replaced. The aim was to reuse as much of the original car as possible but anything that was worn or broken or beyond repair would be replaced.

Progress would be spasmodic and confined largely to sourcing parts that were either missing or beyond repair. This would also spread the cost over a period of time and reduce the pain!

Other bits and pieces could be fitted in when I felt the need for a change from the ongoing Lotus restoration. The main push on the Nippy would come once ‘Elle’ the Lotus Elite was done and if, as many smaller parts as possible, were pre-prepared, then progress would hopefully be swift.

Before this story goes any further it may be worth while taking a backward glance at where Nippy came from. Its history must be rich and varied and it probably would have quite tale to tell….. that is if it could. Sadly as yet I know very little. It was registered in Worcester to Thornes Auto on the nineteenth of June 1936 and given the registration of FK 7400. Its chassis number 246823, Engine M247740 and car number AEB 776. What happened to the car after that is a complete unknown until it received an MOT certificate in April 1981 from Chain Garages (Sales) Ltd, Hanger Lane, Ealing W5. A year later it was MOT’d again in Lutterworth showing a mileage of 35702 which was three thousand less that the previous one. It was in 1982 that it was sold by Motospot to its new owner who kept the car until December 2005 when it moved from its home in the Scottish Borders to Carlisle. Its stay in Carlisle was only about fifteen months when it moved south to my friend David who decided it was a bit more than he wanted to take on and it came to me a few weeks later in July 2007. I hope that one day someone will recognise the registration number and bits of its history may come to light.

In the summer of 2010 the Lotus was finally completed and so work on ‘Stanley’ could now begin in earnest. The partially prepared main floor section was the obvious starting point. When it had had the swaging put into it, it had unfortunately caused some distortion and so the first job was to tidy up this and encourage it back to a flat state. Bit by bit appropriate holes were drilled or cut out to accommodate the steering column, pedals and fixing points. With all necessary folds and turned edge flanges done, it was bolted onto the chassis which was to serve as a jig during construction – at least it was guaranteed to fit when complete. Body to chassis mounting brackets were reproduced from patterns copied from the rusted remains. These were bolted to the chassis outriggers and then drilled for the eventual rivets that would fix them in place. Temporary attachments were made by using 2BA nuts and screws. With the floor supported the side valances which run from the cowhorn brackets at the front to the forward end of the rear wheel arches were shaped using wooden formers and a certain amount of heaving to create the correct curve at the front end. With these screwed in place, a mock-up of the engine block and exhaust down pipe indicated the correct position of the cut out in the nearside valance as there were several cut outs to choose from in the remains of the originals, all but one had been later modifications! Similar mock-up of the steering column, drag link and front axle decided on the size, position and shape of slot required on the offside.

2010 images:

Now it was time to build up the scuttle and extend back wards over the rear axle area.

The footwell sides which act as support for the engine bulkhead cum dash assembly had been copied from the originals and so now these could be fitted and once the bulkhead had been repaired and restored trial fittings could proceed. The final element of this stage was to reproduce the door hinge post mounting plates which also linked the rear end of the side valance to the vertical back edge of the main floor section. This had to be shaped to fit the front edge of the rear wheel arch which in turn had to fit the rear wings. As this bit of the original body was one of the areas that had been replaced by fresh air, this probably was one of the most difficult to reproduce and get right. Get it wrong and the rear wings would not fit and without a good pattern or jig it was not easy.

The original wings were like the Curate’s egg….. good in parts and as there were plenty of parts that were badly rusted and patched and would have been rejected even by the Curate, I decided a new set would provide a more satisfying and long-lasting option. Vintage Wings in Manchester were commissioned to make these using drawings, measurements and the originals as patterns. These have worked out fairly well but will still require some minor surgery to enable them to line up correctly. They also vary slightly in width which presents another challenge.

As previously mentioned a new set of timbers had been made using the remains of the original ash timbers as patterns. This meant that I felt I was making some early progress and also when reconstruction final started then progress really would be accelerated and momentum maintained. Many hours were spent fettling new door hinges and attaching them to the door edges and pillars, so as to position everything accurately. Doing this off the car made it easier than waiting until after assembly. I also made up anchor nut assemblies so that only a screwdriver would be required to remove a door and trim panels could remain in place. This was done with a view to making any future maintenance as easy as possible in the hope that with any luck I wouldn’t have to touch it again. As you may guess I don’t like to rely on wood screws to hold door hinges particularly when the frames are as light weight as the Nippy.

Forming the rear wheel arches was clearly going to be one of the trickier metal forming exercises, after all the shape to be achieved had to combine flat areas alongside compound curves. The finished item had to fit to the rear floor section and match both the curve of the rear wing and the body. Lots of measurements were taken from the original rear wings using the paint line to indicate where body side and wing came together. These were transferred to templates and sections of ash were cut to recreate the edge where wheel arch met body side. These were in turn screwed onto a solid ply base which represented the flat inner face of the wheel arch. The steel was cut to shape and the lower flanges turned over the plywood edge. The steel was secured to the base by 2BA screws in the positions where rivets would finally attaché them to the body. The front section which was to be shaped was then beaten into the shape of the curved front area. At intervals it was taken off the board and put through the wheeling machine which smoothed out the bumps and allowed templates to be used to check the progress. Eventually we ended up with a curve which matched both the line and section of the rear wing. At this stage excess metal was trimmed off and a flange turned over the former which helped the whole thing to maintain its correct form. The remaining lower flange could now be turned and after removing it from the wooden former, the final vertical bend put in to match the plan view of the rear floor. One down, one to go … turn over the base board, attached curved block formers to reproduce the opposite side and start all over again!

So far, so good, or so I thought! The reconstruction of the main floor assembly had gone well but the rear corner pieces which linked the rear end of the side valance to the vertical face of the raised rear section had to be done by guess-work as large parts of the originals had simply disappeared as previously mentioned. The front part of these pieces formed the door hinge pillar fixing so that wasn’t too complicated, however the rear half had to fit the curve of the wheel arch which in turn had to follow the curve of the rear wing and allow the wing to sit in line with the rear wheel.

The rear floor section and fuel tank mounting brackets went on well enough but the wheel arches which should have fitted …. didn’t, well not as well as they needed to. Hours of modifications and adjustments were to follow before the final assembly could be deemed acceptable. It would have been so much easier with a set of accurate matching patterns. As previously stated this had proved to be the most difficult bit so far.

The engine bulkhead/scuttle support assembly was riveted back together and fixed in place using 2BA screws until everything had been aligned and double checked. With the rear ash frame attached to the tail and the scuttle top sitting on the engine bulkhead I found that everything did not quite line up! The back of the cockpit appeared to be higher than the top of the dash and I would have to stretch the bonnet to bridge the gap to the radiator shell! After much measuring and head scratching I realized that the engine bulkhead was leaning back just a little too much. It was fixed to the leading edge of the toe board so that couldn’t move but if the front door pillars were raised by half an inch, the situation was redeemed. Thank goodness I hadn’t riveted the whole lot together. At last the full floor pan structure and timber frame was complete so it was time to add some more paint, refit the timbers and move on to the outer body skin. Trial fits of saveable elements such as the scuttle top and the top and sides of the tail enabled me to move on with confidence knowing that they should still fit when fully repaired.

Over the following weeks this original optimism began to give way to the feeling of – one step forwards and then several back. Firstly, although the tail assemble looked good, I could not persuade the tops of the door hinge posts to sit at the correct overall width. After many hours of procrastination, I eventually had to resort to undoing some of the original floor pan work so that I could widen the floor base slightly, also new hinge posts were made and eventually the correct width was achieved. I moved on once again to the scuttle to try to achieve the correct angle for the front door pillars. It would seem that the rear edge of the bonnet side and the line of the windscreen and door pillar should all be the same …. mine weren’t – well not quite. More head scratching, measuring and re-measuring and I eventually found the correct angle and clamped everything up, at least all those screw holes in the wrong places would save weight! Now for the dash panel… It fitted without the wooden fascia but didn’t when the wood was attached…. The front edges of the glove boxes didn’t quite line up as the engine bulkhead wasn’t quite as flat as it should have been so out with the rivets and start again. We now have new glove boxes and new steel dash backing and at last everything lines up.

At this point the term ‘restoration’ is once again called into question as I have had to replace more than I would have really wanted to. Restoration has had to give way by necessity to reconstruction. The doors will be the next elements that will sadly have to be replacements as the originals, besides being attacked by rust along their lower edges, were also attacked by man along the rear edges, where the line had been altered to allow for the rearward sag of the collapsing tail end …. a novel solution but not entirely successful. No wonder I had problems lining up the front pillars.

When I obtained my Nippy it could be described as having seen better days. The description in the advert had indicated that it needed finishing off. Now this is open to interpretation depending on how optimistic or pessimistic you are. I took the view that it probably meant ‘Let’s start again’ and so I did.

The front half of Stanley has been panelled, the radiator and shell fitted and bonnet restored. New wing stays and front wings have also been added and so from the front it looks rather like a Nippy again. The tail end has also been re-panelled, wings adjusted to fit and door frames remade. This week I have been putting some paint on the inside of the tail before finally fixing it all back together. I am determined that this Nippy is not going to rust from the inside!

Over the next month or so, the doors and boot lid will be completed and the body will then be ready for its colour coat. Most of the running gear is ready to re-assemble so I hope to have something that rolls and looks fairly complete, so that I can provide a photo for the anniversary book, even if it isn’t quite ready for the road.

Now on the front cover of the January 2012 magazine there was a picture of Pearl and Stanley in my workshop. Pearl looked resplendent with the Golden Piston Trophy perched on her bonnet having just returned from her relay stint. Stanley somewhat upstaged sulks in the background. The caption inside the magazine suggested that Pearl was on loan to me while Stanley was being restored. In fact Pearl had come in for a bit of a face lift herself and is now in a multitude of pieces. I am trying to progress both cars side by side and as long as I don’t get too confused and get parts mixed up, they should both eventually return to their correct specifications.

Finally may I share my exploits with Stanley’s fuel tank?

It appeared to be sound although rather dented. Unfortunately some of the dents were along the lower rear edge which of course is very visible on the Nippy. When I removed the sender unit to have a look into the tank, I saw that what had once been the gauze filter around the take-off pipe now looked like a tangled mass of wire strands. There was a fair amount of dry gritty residue which might have been rust. What should I do next? I could not do much without taking the tank apart, but if I did, could I rebuild it again? I decided that the worst thing that could happen was to have a new tank made. It had not had petrol in it for years, so I decided to melt the solder from one end plate and see what would happen next. With blow lamp alight and solder dripping out of the joint we revealed the end plate crimped around the end of the tank. The next stage was to peel back the crimped edge. This needed a bit more localised heat and judicious unfolding with an old screw driver. After a few minutes of concentrated tweaking the end was free and I could see into the tank. Unfortunately I still couldn’t see the decomposed filter gauze as there was a tank baffle in the way. A little more blow lamp work and the soldered baffle was released. Encouraged by the way things had gone so far, the other end was also removed as was the second baffle. Everything was thoroughly cleaned out by the brillo method, revealing the excellent general condition of the interior. From there on it was a matter of making a new gauze filter and then soldering it and the baffles back in. The end plates were re-crimped back into position and the tank then entrusted to Oldham Radiators to solder them up and test for leaks. A final paint job and a shiny new cap and retaining cable and I have a rebuilt tank – free of dents. Finally may I say again – all my use of naked flames was only possible because there was not even a sniff of petrol left inside – bone dry.

It was at least beginning to look like a Nippy again. So why did it take another two years to finish it? This is a question I have asked myself. My only excuse is that just about everything either needed serious attention or in many instances missing parts had to be found and in some cases re-manufactured.

The Ashby steering wheel was a bit far gone with broken spokes and perished rim. Making a new one seemed an easier option although I could not reproduce the moulded rubber rim so it had to be hard and shiny! The door locks were missing so with a bit of help from Chris Gould’s excellent booklet, replacements were crafted. Every effort was made to keep everything as it would have been with as little deviation from originality as possible. The Lucas Alto horn was a success looking just as it did when Joseph last saw it and it has a delightfully comedic ‘peep-peep’ which so fits the character of the car. The aforementioned Joseph’s pull and spin wiper motor was less successful. It looked absolutely magnificent and responded to electricity but when it was asked to move a wiper blade it proved too much so a modern unit of similar proportions had to be used in order to cope with the real world.

The original engine had disappeared back in the mists of time and much of the collection of engine bits that came with the car – Nippy, they were not. However the deep sump and the manifolds were there and the down-draught Zenith carb, although from an Austin eight was at least externally just about right. As the car was built in the early summer of 1936 it just about qualified for a three bearing engine and as I had come by one that had done very little it provided the basis. With one of Tony Betts beautifully turned out repro-sports blocks and cylinder heads it at least looked the part and with a reprofiled cam and followers together with an over bored oil pump and oversized inlet valves it moved closer to being a lump worthy of the car. The gearbox was not from a Nippy but it turned out to be a Super Accessories close ratio unit and appeared to be in pretty good order. I thought about just cleaning it up and fitting it but a little voice in my head kept muttering…. do it properly – so I did and was I relived when I found that one of the synchro rings had come off its splines and been minced. This was replaced by a spare and with new bearings, selector springs and balls plus those in the synchro hubs it all went back together. So the job went on and on and on, bit by bit component by component, until slowly but surely it came together.

With the body painted and waiting the rolling chassis was now assembled. Rear axle rebuilt from the inside out and everything replaced or refurbished in the brake department. The steering box was a good news story with only one sector ever having been used – wow!

By January this year, the rolling chassis was complete, the engine was on the bench and going together well and the gearbox was just itching to be hooked on to the its bell housing. What could possibly go wrong? The clutch assembly decided it didn’t want to join the party and after several very frustrating days I was looking for a strong rope and a sturdy beam. Fortunately I had neither so I called on Alan Fairless. He was unable to help with the rope or the beam but he did sort out the clutch assembly, so all was well.

At last we had a complete rolling chassis and a body just waiting to be lifted onto it. With the help of a few sturdy ‘younger’ men this was achieved and so all those bit and pieces that had been waiting for so long could now be brought together. Would it be ready for Wollaton Park? The race was on. In the end we didn’t make it as there was a small matter of lack of trim on seats or any form of weather equipment. The trimmer was on the job, but the job was not yet complete.

Stanley finally made his maiden voyage on Sunday 4th August. A short sort of test flight of about a mile and a half to see if it worked. It did although owing to a poor seal on the radiator cap, it did give a worrying impression of a small volcanic eruption after about a mile. We managed to reach home without having to push and nothing fell off so it was a start. Although it had looked dramatic, the engine was by no means overheating and so having found that an old petrol can cap fitted the threads on the radiator neck, this was screwed on and on the next day a ten mile test was achieved and all was well.

Buoyed by this success it was time for Stanley to meet his public with an appearance at our Cheshire Sevens Club night. A thirty mile round trip, the return half after dark. Mission accomplished without missing a beat. Why was I worrying; after all, Stanley is an Austin Seven.

A big thank you to all those who have helped me put Stanley – or should that be Humpty, together again. Particularly Owen, without whose precision engineering skills, Stanley might have been a little rustic in places. Advice, support and encouragement of others is an essential element in helping a restoration reach completion and this is where our fellow Austineers are pure gold. If I can spread a little encouragement to anyone who is in the process of coming to terms with a needy Nippy then contact me through the Nippy archive; I am always ready to commiserate with fellow sufferers.

Originally published in 4 parts in the PWA7C magazines 2011-13 and edited for this single article. ‘Stanley’ went on into the ownership of Peter Relph who wrote a number of articles on his travels. Peter sadly died in October 2018.

Rolling chassis images:

Body parts:

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